Author: Dr Kathryn Waddington

The need for compassion in our universities, and more widely in society and for the planet is an urgent one;  the neoliberal universities of the 21st century have been described as “anxiety machines”. The charity Student Minds highlight mental health of staff and students as the focus of increasing concerns, and there is evidence of a compassion gap in UK universities.  Data from Universities UK shows the number of students dropping out of university with mental health problems has more than trebled. In the ten year period from 2007/08 to 2016/17 the number of students disclosing a mental health condition rose from 9 675 to an alarming 57 305, and student suicide rates are also increasing.

The book I edited Towards the Compassionate University: From Golden Thread to Global Impact (Routledge in March 2021) is an attempt to address this urgent need. The book was the focus of a panel discussion at the university’s 2021 Difference Festival, comprising authors from the university who had written chapters about: self-compassion (Jenni Nowlan); compassion and resilience (Justin Haroun); creating compassionate organisational cultures (Lisa Matthewman); compassion and tolerance (Yusuf Kaplan) and; compassion and neoliberal higher education policies in England (Frands Pedersen) and Dr Kathryn Waddington, who chaired the panel, and introduced the discussion with the opening question “Why compassion, why now?”.

In 2019 the Higher Education Policy Institute reported an “epidemic of poor mental health” in all university staff. Based on a freedom of information request, over two thirds of staff, from whatever discipline, academic or professional services, said they struggled for half of their time to complete their workload; disturbingly, nearly one-third struggle all of the time. Those on fixed-term contracts experience worry and anxiety about their employment status with over one-third stating they experience poor mental health as a consequence. Staff and students are suffering and this is why compassion is needed in our universities.

Compassion quite literally means to “suffer with” and is a process that involves (i) noticing that suffering is present in an organisation; (ii) feeling empathic concern; and most importantly (iii) taking action. However, the term “sufferer” is also synonymous with “victim” and in the book we argue that being and learning at universities should be an individually empowering experience. Compassion in universities is better described as recognising and noticing the difference, discrimination and bias in how people are being treated, and students are being taught. This calls for compassionate pedagogy, which is about ensuring that our teaching and interactions with students and colleagues are based on kindness, and followed through by actions and practices that are equitable and inclusive, and free from racism and harassment. Compassionate pedagogy is important because it allows students, teachers and all involved in universities to become a humanising voice which listens to, hears and responds appropriately to the realities of the marginalised and excluded.

Meanwhile, being compassionate is one of our university’s core values:

“We are thoughtful and sensitive, supportive and encouraging, making time to talk, especially when the pressure is on. As a University community we are inclusive and united, careful to consider what enables each and every one of us to play our part”.

The book Towards the Compassionate University written collectively by colleagues at Westminster plays an important role in ensuring that the university’s core value of being compassionate is put into practice. More broadly, the book raises awareness of the crucial role of compassion as a core concern in education, health and social care, and has global impact, helping to ensure the sustainable development goals necessary for the future of humankind and the planet are met.

Drawing upon a wide range of interdisciplinary, theoretical, and professional perspectives — including social sciences, modern Darwinism, intersectionality, higher education policy, and organisation studies — the book addresses the key challenges facing 21st-century universities. For example, intersectionality and higher education, staff and student health and well-being, and responding to global challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic.

The book is relevant to university leaders, policy makers, educators, researchers, university staff, and students aspiring to develop their own understanding of the role of compassion in professional life. Meanwhile, all royalties from sales of the book will be donated to the UK charity Student Minds.

Author’s biography:

Dr Kathryn Waddington is a Reader in Psychology in the School of Social Sciences and is passionate about academic-practitioner research and scholarship that makes a difference to people’s lives. In addition to publications in the field of compassion Kathryn is author of the forthcoming book Gossip, Organisation and Work: A Research Overview, based on her doctoral research at Goldsmiths, University of London, and which will be published later this year in the Routledge Series “State of the art in Business Research”.

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